Saturday, December 31, 2011

Dear Hilary, Love Hilary: The Beginning of It All

It's the last night of 2011, and this has been a year for advice (Dear Sugars, especially), and for finding the voice that sounds inside me, for the letters I have to write to find the truth. This has been a year for the tough love, for the awful obedience, for the beautiful brave things. This has been a year of gut-wrenching yes: and so at the end of it, I want to write the gorgeous, hard truth. 

Dear Hilary, 

It's New Year's Eve. I'm at home, quiet among my family and the customary clinking of dishes and desserts. I'm sitting here typing out letters to form words to form sentences and all I can think is "What the hell was 2011, anyway?" And can we even know, what years are, and what they mean? And why did I do those obedient things? And why did I have to break my own heart? And why did I keep blogging? And why didn't I apply to grad school? And why did I sit in her car looking at the moon and its watery ocean self and think that I am a writer? And what was the point of it? 

Hilary - What was 2011?


Dear Wondering, 

I'm sitting at home this New Year's Eve, too. I'm sitting at home typing out letters to form words to form sentences. I'm writing back to you because you ask so many questions and tonight, it's the chance to spit it out straight and shout it loud and whisper it between your words and mine, in that sacred space we share. Your living beating heart to mine. 

2011 was the beginning of it all. 

Every year is the beginning of it all. It's the beginning. It's a gift, too precious to hold onto tightly. It's too precious even to try and interpret. Can I give you some advice, love? Don't expect to understand everything. 

Be hungry for understanding. Let the hunger feed you. But don't think that because you hunger to answer those stupid and beautiful questions about what it all means you will find answers. Don't assume that you can hold the answers, even if they found you. Don't assume that you're meant to know it all, and if you can't tell exactly why it all happened you've failed some kind of self-awareness test you didn't even know we were giving you. There isn't always an answer. There isn't hardly ever the kind of answer you think you want. 

Why did you have to do those awful obedient things? Because they were the beginning of obedience. Because they were the beginning of a you who cherishes honesty and trusts that this is worth it. 

Why did you have to break your own heart? Because we all do, someday. Because you can't always have what you want and there is breaking and bending whenever we reach the edges. 

You kept blogging for the same reason that you didn't apply to grad school for the same reason that you looked at that moon and its watery ocean twin and thought you are a writer. You did it to make the you. You did it to make the life, and, love, most of the time it won't fit in a box or complete a color-by-number or answer the last four boxes of the crossword puzzle. This is you, making the life. Making the you

Can you see that? That living, beating heart of yours behind these words on New Year's Eve? The gorgeous, hard truths you stepped out into, and brought into your home and your friendships and your words and your life?

The thing you want to know is not what 2011 was. You don't want to know the answer to all those questions of why and who cares and so what and how does it even matter. No, my dear, you want to say YES. You don't want an explanation: you want to begin. You want to build. You want to write and think and heart-break and sing and thesis-defend and not-apply-to-grad-school and blog and love the way towards the truth. 

Can I give you a bit of advice? Write. Think. Break, sing, thesis-defend, not-apply-to-grad-school, blog, love your way towards the truth. It's the only way forward you've got. It's all any of us have got. Take it. 

2011 was the beginning of it all, love. Now build. 


Friday, December 30, 2011

It was always each other (I search for a love story)

There hasn't been a real dose of sunshine in days - it's grey skies and English temperatures as far as the eye can see. I stretch in the early morning and look out my smudged, 18th century windows with their chipped frames. I see the grass sprinkled with frost, the old pile of rocks next to the pine tree where we used to play pirate ship. I see the outline of our property and the line we used to walk right up to, where the milkweed burst forth in summer and I would open the pouches and trace my fingers down the silk spines of the seeds, and then toss them, handful by handful, towards the sky. Those summers it rained white seeds.

This morning I remember my grandparents.

They got married in what we would call a rush - meeting like they did in November, no engagement to speak of, married in March in two smart conservative suits and off into the world. I'd say they got married in a fever.

But my grandparents weren't really like that. It was March, 1948, after the war and before the children. It was a small sapphire tucked between two diamonds on her finger and the plain gold band on his, the bright smiles and the damp English weather. They knew, my dad tells me. It was always each other. They entered married simply, quietly even, and for the next fifty years their love grew through stone houses and out-of-tune pianos and labradors and muddy boots and two boys who loved fields and farms and lambing.

It grew through all the smallness I forget about: the thin china cups at their feet and the perpetual smell of fire and damp moss, how they could sit in a silence more loving than all my fancy adjectives and long speeches about love. And through all my twenty years of knowing them, I never heard them tell their story. Granddad smoked his pipe, and Granny knitted her tea cozy, and I sat on the stool by their feet with my black Mary Janes poking out at awkward angles, my tongue between my teeth and my eyes fixed on Almanzo Wilder and Laura Ingalls. I read about a great love story while I sat in the midst of one.

I remember finding old black and white pictures of them, marveling that once they were young, once Dad had been a little boy in overalls clutching a sheep to his knees. I remember coughing from the dust in their abandoned bedroom two years ago and crying, suddenly and violently, for the story I had never thought to ask them. For the story of their love, their beginning.

So this cold English morning, the windows rattle and shiver, the fire burns. I trace my finger over her engagement ring in its original 1947 box, that my dad brought home last year after her funeral. It's too big for me now, but I slip it on and I slip into their love story. I imagine asking them the hundred questions I forgot to ask. I imagine watching their eyes wrinkle in remembrance, their smiles widen, the teacups clattering against the cold stone of the floor. I imagine the house again, and the hundreds of pages of love hidden inside it.

This year, somehow, I promise to search for their love story. This year, somehow, I promise to write it. 


Saturday, December 24, 2011

Even Unto Bethlehem (Reflections on Christmas Day)

Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmas our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels, in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger. ~ The Bidding Prayer of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols 

Is there any other news to tell this world? But to come, come with us, even unto Bethlehem? Because out of Bethlehem comes Life. Out of Bethlehem comes the glorious redemption! Come with me?

Come farther than our church doors. Come farther than your dinner table. Come farther than your questions and doubts. Come laden and burdened and anxious. Come with the smallest of smiles and the widest of them. 

We trail and traipse after the shepherds, straining our ears for just a glimmer of the angel song, just a hint of that star. We trip over ourselves in haste, and we lag behind, unsure of what we will find there. The journey is long, some years, and the dry desert sand cuts at our feet. Our hearts ache with the swelling promise and the wild call of hope. We stop, catch our breath. This night, the sky is scattered with stars, and the wind slices at our cheeks. Is this worth it, we whisper to each other as we trudge on.

We crest over the hill, and the star hovers above us. 

He has been expecting us. He waits, helpless, for our hands to unclench and reach out for Him. He watches in delight as we discover that this thing which is come to pass is the Redemption of the world. He who is without sin becomes sin so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. He who is from everlasting to everlasting comes to us, to live under our brief hours and weeks, our poor broken measurements of time. He who authored this world dwells in it. 

We are the beloved He descends to love. 

We are the sheep He comes to raise up on the last day. 

We are the broken battered world He gives Himself up to save. 

We are the sought out; the city not forsaken. 

Come, even unto Bethlehem? 


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dear Reader, You are Beautiful.

Every so often I wonder who writes letters anymore, if anyone threads words together in ink and sends them into the world, for another person to touch. I wonder how we weave that kind of communication back into our days, how we spend time again in our pens and paper and stamps.

I don't know if you need to hear this today, but if you are like me and you ask almost every mirror - from the hotel bathroom to the rearview to the elegant gilded one in a museum (to the one in the most gorgeous bathroom ever when you were at the Nutcracker) - if you are beautiful, I wanted to write to you. I write to you if you fear the answer, or if you are cynical and jaded and you've already decided that you know the answer. I wanted to write to you who thinks this question is old and the answer boring. I wanted to write to you, you specifically, because I wish for nothing more than unlimited hours and peppermint mochas and Heath bar cookies and you and me in this life together.

I want to write to you because this is a question that lingers and in the last days of Advent I want to welcome the light. I wanted to shed a little light on us as we journey.

Dear Reader,




(mandie sodoma creative)
You. Are. Beautiful. I could parse and dissect those words until each letter has been explained, how the three syllables of "beautiful" weave together, how the active version of "being" tells us that you live beauty, and that it's you, the one reading these words, that I'm talking to and about. But I don't think I need to do that. It's not about proving something with iron-clad logic, or listing objections and their counters. Your beauty is not measured or measurable. It sparks like July thunderstorms and overflows like stream banks in spring.

You are beautiful. You are beautiful because of the brave things, and the obedient things, because you are honest and you step out beyond what is comfortable. You teach other people what beautiful means by how you listen to them - on long car rides or rushed whispers. By how you write words to them - in five minutes or fifty hours. By how you smile across the room and wink to let them know they're not invisible.

You've done that to me, so many times. You look over and smile. You wait for me while I cry in coffeeshops. You stop me in our doorway when you can tell I'm not happy with how I look and you grab my hand and say, "You look wonderful." Just like that. Do you know how beautiful that is?

I've been quiet about this over the past few weeks, about my own struggle with believing this. Maybe you are wondering if I can say it because I'm so confident of it in myself. I bet you dismiss my words, saying to yourself, "Well of course she can tell me this because she believes it!" And how I wish that was true. But each one of us wonders if we are and none of us trust the answer. And with my friend Rilke, I want to reassure you in his words... "And if there is one more thing that I must say to you, it is this: Don't think that the person who is trying to comfort you now lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes give you pleasure. His life has much trouble and sadness, and remains far behind yours. If it were otherwise, he would never have been able to find those words."

I find the words for this letter to you because I don't always live this answer. Because when I look into my heart to prepare for Advent I find this lie growing there. The lie that says it's never pretty enough. The lie that says what God loves isn't what someone else loves and so what's the point?

What a question, dear reader. What a question. I won't pretend it doesn't have power. It grows and twists around my heart and yours. It sneaks in under doors and yells out of mirrors and whispers through the tear-stained longing for it to be different. But I will tell us both that it is not as powerful as the truth. It is not bigger than that gift. It is not the end of the story.

I tell you, you are beautiful, because words are what I have and because I hope that this Christmas you hear a different story. The one that ends with Love. The one where you and I see ourselves in the light from that star over that stable and suddenly, we hear:

(Jessica Fairchild Photography)
You are so beautiful. 

My wondering, confused, hopeful heart wanted to be sure you heard it loud and bright.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Why I Babysit (a letter to my charges)

Dear sweet ones,

Tonight, the world shrinks. It's the size of the apartment, the size of the hallway where I pace back and forth, your squirming arms and legs colliding with my collarbone and my ribcage as I coax you. "I know, Ema! I know - it's hard when Mom's not here." The world is now the square foot of carpet with thousands of my sock footprints as I rock you.

I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror: my hair is falling out of its tight french braid and whisps are stuck to my face at strange angles. My corduroys are baggy and one sleeve of my sweater is pushed up and the other is not. There is drool on all of my clothes. You've been fascinated by my cell phone and it's also covered with drool.

You catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror, too - and I watch your eyes grow wide in surprised delight. "Who is that other baby in there?" I laugh as I shimmy and shake. And as your eyes crinkle and you put your pudgy fingers to the surface, you laugh. There is nothing like babies laughing.

I wrestle you into your yellow fuzzy pajamas and hand you the bottle. You hold it in both hands, and settle into my arms. I sink into the chair in your nursery, trying to put the penguin night light back on its stand with my feet, so I don't disturb our sweet and temporary silence. You look up at me, your eyes taking in the light and the green and pink patterns and this strange new face. My world, which spins at 150 miles per second, which holds seven to fifteen meetings per week and that most days doesn't want to think about anything but grilled cheese and tomato soup for dinner - you flip it upside down. My world, that is always about the next horizon, the next job, the next task, the next... the next... the next... is for a few hours the size of my arms and your yellow pajamed-self.

I babysit because I need you to teach me how to love. I need you to laugh at me, tell me the same jokes and dare me to stick my tongue out the car window. I need you to color Christmas cards with crayons and challenge me to duels on your swingsets. I need you to remind me that there is treasure hidden under the oak tree, and that some days crying is the best way to express your hunger.

I babysit because I am a hurricane of a twenty-something world that goes by faster than light and sound. Because it feels like I am always straining to look older, seem older, seem cooler and wiser and more mature. Because I need the world to shrink down to a square foot of carpet where The Civil Wars and Sara Bareilles play the same songs, where the only words you need are, "It's okay, love." Because for a moment I need to step out of the hurricane and into the dragon hunting, storytelling, hot chocolate on my lap, fight over the broken crayon, aching arms of love. 

Your parents give me this privilege: to learn from you, in your yellow pajamas and pirate costumes and red hats. Your parents share the miracles that you are with me for a few hours, and those few hours where I can be the baby-whisperer are some of the most precious to me. I know that there are thousands of moments that I miss, and your parents are there in the long nights and the 3am stomach bugs and the letters from teachers and spilled finger paint and smacking your siblings. But I hope I never stop being your babysitter, because for the small miraculous moments I do get to watch you grow I grow, too.

Thank you, sweet ones, for everything you've taught me about love.

All of mine to you,

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Room for the Child (Reflections on the Fourth Sunday of Advent)

This is the irrational season
where love blooms bright and wild
had Mary been filled with reason, 
there'd have been no room for the Child. - Madaleine L'Engle

Advent is the excavation of our hearts. We begin to clean, dust off the cobwebs of the year, the words we collected, the stories we've been harboring, the sorrows and wild joys. In Advent we are making ourselves ready for the coming of Emmanuel. God with us. This Advent season, I want to offer a few reflections every week, to excavate my own heart and to prepare for Him with you. 

Fourth Sunday of Advent

We beseech thee, Almighty God, to purify our consciences by 
thy daily visitation, that when thy Son Jesus Christ cometh he
may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; through the
same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with 
thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for 
ever. Amen. 

I first encountered Mary in Sacré Coeur, Paris, France, on a hot June afternoon. We had been hefting our too-full schoolbags all afternoon. The sweat beaded on our foreheads and my grey striped shirt felt sticky in the late afternoon sun. My classmates wandered around the cathedral with the strict admonition to watch out for pickpockets and not to be drawn in by the men selling colorful scarves and trinkets (all they want to do, they told us, is rip off American tourists). All I could think about was how much better it would have been to sit outside in the sun with my friends' digital cameras and café au lait, rather than walking through one more echoing marble building.

I met Mary the way you meet a friend who slips in to share the pew with you on a Sunday morning. Her presence slipped in next to me as I stood, reluctantly and skeptically, in front of flickering candles and a statue of her presenting her Child. It was as if she stood next to me, this woman who was nothing more to me than the blue dress I had always coveted in the church Christmas pageant. Mary, who had been just one more person in a big story, stood next to me. And as I stood there, I could almost hear her chiding me. "Is there room for Him in you, Hilary?" 

We empty ourselves to make room for Him in Advent. We clear out the lies we have told ourselves, the excuses, the thoughts we think He can't hear. We scrub down the walls from the splattered paint and crayon stains. We vacuum. We wipe windows and open doors to let the air in.

I realized that afternoon that my heart was not ready for the Gift. I did not have room. Oh, I was full of things - questions about beauty and truth, secrets about crushes and plans for college, the things I had heard and the other things I had done, the good words of Til We Have Faces and my first encounter with Flannery O'Connor. I was full to the brim with opinions and ideas and feelings.

But I did not have room for Him.

That day, among the cheap white votives and the wisps of incense, standing in front of a statue of Mary and Jesus, I heard her ask me this question. I can almost picture her - her hand on her belly, steadying herself in the delicate balance of pregnancy, looking at me looking for Him. Is there room for Him in you? This is the question I have been asking all Advent. How do I make room for Him? How do I make myself a mansion prepared?

Making room for the Child and the bright, wild, blooming love is not an algebra problem. It is not a set of mandates we follow. It is not a packet of assembly instructions. It is not closing our eyes and wishing hard or lighting twenty three candles instead of twenty two.

Like Mary, we need only to say that first, messy, nervous, yes. I, like Mary, need to hear that nothing will be impossible with God and respond, "Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be unto me according to Thy word."

"Is there room for Him in you, Hilary?" She asked me in June five years ago. And this Sunday I stand next to her, turn my eyes to Him, and whisper, "Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus." 


Friday, December 16, 2011

the unexpected gifts

A year ago I wrote about how much my heart longed to wrap up moments, tie ribbons on the uncontainable joy and the challenges and the laughing fits and the trips to the expensive grocery store on Pennsylvania and the cupcakes and the almost-tattoos. And this year, I want to give those gifts again. Because in the sea of wrapping paper and Michael Bublé Christmas music, when you mangle the tape and trip over the boxes and burn the cookies and forget where you hid things... I want to remember these things.

So I imagine.

I imagine placing those four Whole Foods cupcakes (the ones without identifiable flavors) in a box for you. Next to them I put all the seasons of 30 Rock that we watched on your bed when the days stretched out in front of us and the city sidewalks were sprinkled with leaves. I give you laughing uncontrollably about my initial reaction to Melancholia, and our hands flying around our faces as we talked about Kirsten Dunst and our final years of college and where in this world we imagined going. I give you the moments when you looked at me with the comprehension of someone who first met me in 10th grade, and has been there ever since. And I whisper as I hand it over to you, as small and shy as it is, always the years, always the years between us. Always the love. Always the hours. 

I imagine wrapping up the gold and red books in their smooth case - The Complete Works of Jane Austen - and tying it with a bow. I give you the gift and watch you unwrap it as the pie bakes in the oven and the wine sits expectantly by the fire. When you open it I know that you're remembering all the years of conversations, of imagining ourselves in the stories. First Jane, and Lizzy, and then occasionally Marianne and Elinor, and always Emma, and I've gone out of my way to insist that Anne of Green Gables and Jo March find their way inside our memories too. And you know how long and difficult these stories are, but that we write ourselves inside them. And that we tell our stories best through the characters we love. I've hidden Joe Pug and Ben Knox Miller in there, too, for a later day by the fire. And as we take the pie out of the oven I laughingly tell you, that I would not trade one single moment of sharing our uncertainty and our love. That with us, it's never less than kindred spirits. 

I imagine holding out a night at Chianti and then another at Gulu-Gulu and maybe a few scattered chai and cappuccino mornings at the Atomic, and spreading them out our floor. In each of them I point to the moment we laughed, leaned in to tell a joke or roll our eyes at something ridiculous. And then I point to the moment next to it, when we looked at each other with so much understanding and so much respect. I give you the promise of a semester full of small escapes, and a map of the DC metro system, and Rilke's words, which have become our own, crinkled in letters and in inboxes and text messages. I give you the words that I wish I could say, a whole dictionary of our friendship. And I pull you into a hug and whisper, "Thank you." Some days our solitudes protect and touch and greet each other. And this is love. 

I imagine hiding a huge box in our apartment for the three of you to open when you come back. It's full of the strange motley crew of us: family dinners of sweet potato gnocchi and picnics with the fire alarm going off in the background and baking zucchini bread and talking in strange accents (oh, my, gawwwwwd) and laughing. I keep the Love Wins discussions and the Florence + the Machine blasting, and the dance lessons (we still don't know how "everyday I'm shufflin'" yet). But I tie it with a bow and hide it so that when you find it, it surprises you to remember. How this semester we have carried each other, and made each other laugh and yell and be better friends and better versions of ourselves. I tuck in a promise of Alchemy girl's nights and more family dinners and trips back to my house next semester. Because you make our apartment home. Because you three are home.

And I imagine sending you something direct to Jackson, packaged in brown paper with my messy scrawl smudged from the travel. I send you the ache of distance and departure, the homesickness and the blog posts where I tried to capture just what it is you mean to me. I send you a recording of me sighing loudly and exasperatedly in the office, and a mug for tea, and a cupcake with eggnog buttercream and sweet mocha filling (or something equally amazing from our favorite place). I send you the stories I've been saving up to tell you, and the hugs, and the smile of the quiet place. I give them to you so that in the midst of learning how to be far apart we also learn how to stay close. I give them to you because you teach me the long obedience and because I miss you. Very much. I give you a big hug and a knowing look - and a bit of heartache because I love you. 

There are too many to name, too many gifts to wrap and moments to cherish, but I leave you, dear readers, with a hug and a smile. With a Starbucks toffee nut latte and a long laugh about how much we worry and how good He is. With the promise that you are a treasured gift to me this Christmas. And I treasure each of you in my heart.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

You are not invisible (I come back inside)

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, ruler of the universe. 
Your prophets spoke of a day when the desert would blossom
and waters break forth in the wilderness. 
Bless us as we light the candles on this wreath. 
Strengthen our hearts
as we prepare for the coming of the Lord. 
May he give water to all who thirst,
for he is our light and our salvation. 
Blessed be God forever. Amen.  (from Come, Lord Jesus: Devotions for the Home)

Today I was wondering how hearts heal. I know they do. I know that time and Advent and lighting a fire in the wood stove and typing next to a sleeping black lab build up the muscle, restore the blood flow, remind our tired selves that indeed, all shall be well. But how does that happen? How long does it take, to wade through and wonder and reassemble the jigsaw puzzle of yourself? How do our hearts get put back together? 
(mandie sodoma, sindisiwe photography)
I was having lunch today with one of my mentors when the beginning of an answer sprang up in front of me, unbidden. She asked, "How are you?" and I said, "I'm good, Dr. Phillips. He is so faithful." Internally I paused. Wait. What did I just say? That He is that faithful? Me, who's been hammering down the doors and throwing up the prayers and impatiently telling myself that He is not faithful, that He does not notice, that I am invisible? 

She smiled at me, a knowing and gentle smile. "How do you know that? How do you keep that in front of you in what is a horribly stressful time of year?" A few seconds of silence, and I glanced out the window at the pond and the last few leaves scuttling across the pavement. 

"Because I am not invisible. Because He has me on a short leash. Because every time I want to run, and I try to run, He calls out to me. And when I hear Him, Dr. Phillips, I come home again. Because I can't not be in love with Him."

We let those words linger above us as we kept talking, weaving our conversation through Isaiah and God's sovereignty, love, and will, wondering about where I'll go next and how good it is to learn things. But that's the answer: I am not invisible. He calls out to me. 

And if you are like me, there are always these moments, these seasons or years, where you think you're invisible. That He doesn't care about you. That His love isn't for you. That His goodness doesn't reach you where you are and maybe He forgot and maybe He gave up and maybe He left you in the desert to thirst forever. 

But you are not invisible. You are not invisible. The deserts blossom. The water breaks forth in the wilderness. And I keep hearing Him call out to us, to come inside, to remember that He is always with us. To remember that all He has is ours. 

This wild and miraculous love puts our hearts back together by living inside us. 

We are not invisible. We are so visible He sent Himself to live with us. We are so visible, and so impossibly loved, that He is Immanuel. God with us. And He is coming to make the deserts blossom.  


Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Gift is Bigger than the World (Reflections on the Third Sunday in Advent)

This is the irrational season
where love blooms bright and wild
had Mary been filled with reason, 
there'd have been no room for the Child. - Madaleine L'Engle

Advent is the excavation of our hearts. We begin to clean, dust off the cobwebs of the year, the words we collected, the stories we've been harboring, the sorrows and wild joys. In Advent we are making ourselves ready for the coming of Emmanuel. God with us. This Advent season, I want to offer a few reflections every week, to excavate my own heart and to prepare for Him with you. 

Third Sunday of Advent

Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come 
among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, 
let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver 
us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and 
the Holy Ghost, be honor and glory, world without end. 

The third Sunday in Advent is always the Sunday of paradox. Great might comes among us in the baby born in a manger in a no-name town to an unmarried woman, in the middle of the night, surrounded by cattle. Can you imagine it? The God who is YHWH, who is un-Nameable, who parts the Red Sea and sends manna - He sends a child.

Some days I think that gift isn't big enough for the world. 

I look at my own heartbreak and say, "The child's not big enough." I look at the sorrow overflowing in homes and say, "He can't fix it." I look out at the world that bleeds and bends with poverty, and thirst, and hunger, with injustice and war and anger, and I look up at heaven and say: "You sent... A BABY?"

Have you ever wondered about this radical story we call Christmas? How we pin our hope of redemption, our hope in love, our hope in all that is beautiful and true and good, inside the womb of a young girl? Sometimes it feels like foolishness. What can this Child do? What injustice can he make right? What world can he make new? What great might does he have?

But this is the bountiful, overflowing grace of it all. The Child in the manger is the stirred up power of the Almighty. He chooses this way - the way of helplessness to save us who are helpless. He chooses humility to conquer. He chooses to trust the humans who have proven themselves untrustworthy. He chooses to send Love to us, when we have rejected it a thousand, thousand times.

The Child isn't too small for this world; we are too small for the Child. Our hearts are not wide enough yet to hold Him. It's us, dear readers, not the gift. The gift is bigger than my broken heart. The gift is bigger than your chaotic, unending week of frustration. The gift is bigger than the injustices we cry out against. The gift is bigger than the hunger and thirst and war and devastation.

This gift, that shatters metaphysics and epistemology and ethics, the gift remakes the meaning of Love. And if we let it, the gift will remake us. It will open us until we are big enough to hold Him.

May the gift of this Child fling wide your heart this week. 


Friday, December 9, 2011

My Winter Song To You: Sara, Ingrid and Love

This is my wintersong to you. 
The storm is coming soon
it rolls in from the sea

The storm is coming soon. A year ago I sat in my living room on 8th St and listened to the heartbeat of the piano, Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson. I listened to them keep time to my own departure, to the hours slipping by before I had to take the 5am bus to Baltimore, before the hard truth of departure. In so many ways, the storm is always coming: this world is not easy. It is not always simple, it is not convenient. The winter song remembers that some days the storm rolls in from the sea. The piano keeps time with our hearts as we watch the waves, as we hear the wind.

My voice a beacon in the night
my words will be your light
to carry you to me

I wonder this some days. If my voice here, my words here, are light to carry you closer. You, the reader, who live so far away, between the typewriter keys and the telephone wires and the tables in Starbucks where I wish I could sit with you for hours, and tell you about how much you surprise me with your joy and life and story. This Advent, we need to carry each other. We need to be beacons in the night, the words that remember how the light is coming. I hope some of these words here carry you closer to me. But more than that I hope they are beacons to the Light born in that manger.

Is love alive? 
Is love alive? 
Is love

Isn't this the question we're always asking - if any of this is more than a shadow, more than wishful thinking, more than one more daydream? Love is alive. He is moving inside Mary. He is waiting, preparing, so patient with us it almost looks like He has given up. But Love is alive. And because He is, our love lives too. The love among us, that connects and deepens and builds, the love that breaks hearts open and makes you vulnerable. That love is alive. That love is worth it. 

this is my winter song
December never felt so wrong
'cause you're not where you belong
inside my arms.

So I sing to you. I sing in my car from three Decembers ago, when I first heard this song. I sing from the long run between 22nd St and the Capitol. I sing for any and all of you because I don't have the answers but I have hope. I have the hope that someone will hold you close to their hearts and answer that question about love and remind you that you belong in their arms.

I'll be your harvester of light
and send it out tonight
so we can start again.

A year ago I wrote about my soul waking up - about that fickle heart and Mumford & Sons. A year ago I wrote about a song to help prepare the way. And so now, the piano sounds in the office and I turn back the pages of the year. I'll harvest the light for you, Hilary, He seems to tell me. I'll send it out to you. We can start again. I watch Him gathering the blog posts, the advice columns, the letters, the too-tired mornings, the runs around Coy Pond, the questions, the cupcakes, the laughter. I watch Him make them into light. Because Advent is about making our lives lights. Because He's choosing our hearts as dwelling places. Because the winter song is love. 
(mandie sodoma, sindisiwe photography)

And all of mine to you, to carry you closer,

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The ache of Advent

I sprained or strained something yesterday. A sharp pain pulls at my ankle when I run, and so this morning when the cool air beckoned and the woods sang out for me, I couldn't go. I started to run, feeling the ache, thinking I could just power through, ignore it, move anyway. 

It stopped me at twenty yards and turned me around. Back to ice, back to rest, back to being still on the couch. I muttered angrily to myself about "Injuries!" and their inconvenience, and looked out at the water rippling across the pond, and it hit me.

Did I forget that Advent reveals the ache? 

Did I forget that Advent, the season of preparation, shows us where we are most broken? We await the coming of long-expected Jesus. We cry out for His light. We cry out for His joy. But why would we be crying out if there wasn't something in us that aches? If our muscles and bones weren't cracking and straining from the weight, from the falling down and falling apart? 

Isn't what makes Advent its own miracle is how the Light we wait for already shows us how much we need Him? When we light the Advent wreath, or pray a weekly prayer, or read a devotional, we are making ourselves ready for Him. We are clearing the field, resting the broken bones, taking time to be still and feel the ache for Him.

That's the point of Advent. It isn't to look busy when Jesus comes. It isn't to look pious when others come. It isn't to power through one more season or one more Christmas party or one more morning run. The point of Advent is the ache for the long-expected one. It is to let the ache fill you up so that when He comes, we know who He is. The point of Advent is to make space in your heart that aches for Jesus. 

How can we remember this? Pray with me, from a Catholic Advent Prayer?

Come, long-expected Jesus. 
Excite in me a wonder at the wisdom and power of Your 
Father and ours. 
Receive my prayer as part of my service of the Lord 
who enlists me in God's own work for justice. 

Come, long-expected Jesus. 
Excite in me a hunger for peace: peace in the world, 
peace in my home, peace in myself. 

Come, long-expected Jesus. 
Excite in me a joy responsive to the Father's joy. 
I seek His will so I can serve with gladness, singing and 

Come, long-expected Jesus. 
Excite in me the joy and love and peace 
it is right to bring to the manger of my Lord. 
Raise in me, too, 
sober reverence for the God who acted there, 
hearty gratitude for the life begun there, 
and spirited resolution to serve the Father and Son. 

I pray in the name of Jesus Christ, 
whose advent I hail.


Today, may the ache of Advent fill you with the hope of His coming. 


Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Message is Joy (Reflections on the Second Sunday in Advent)

This is the irrational season
where love blooms bright and wild
had Mary been filled with reason, 
there'd have been no room for the Child. - Madaleine L'Engle

Advent is the excavation of our hearts. We begin to clean, dust off the cobwebs of the year, the words we collected, the stories we've been harboring, the sorrows and wild joys. In Advent we are making ourselves ready for the coming of Emmanuel. God with us. This Advent season, I want to offer a few reflections every week, to excavate my own heart and to prepare for Him with you. 

Second Sunday of Advent

Merciful God, who sent thy messengers the prophets to 
preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: 
Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, 
that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our 
Redeemer; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy
Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Cassandra was a beautiful woman in Troy. She caught the eye of Apollo, the Greek god of music and light, and her beauty was so much that he granted her the gift of prophecy. Surely, he thought to himself, she will love me back. But when Cassandra spurned his advances, Apollo cursed her, so that no one who heard her prophecies would believe her, although the prophecies would always come true. The people would hear beautiful Cassandra but would never believe her words. They would not change because of her. They would not trust her.

You could very well ask why in the world I am writing about Cassandra and Apollo in a reflection on the second Sunday of Advent. Sometime I treat God's revelation as a prophecy from Cassandra. I tell myself it's not true, that I am in control, that I don't need to change or alter or repent. I tell myself that, well, Jesus is coming, but what does that really mean, anyway. It's not like his coming will change anything. I stand in that crowd of people in Troy and scoff at beautiful Cassandra; I stand among the Israelites and listen to Isaiah:

"Comfort, comfort my people, 
   says your God. 
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, 
   and proclaim to her 
that her hard service has been completed, 
   that her sin has been paid for, 
that she has received from the LORD’s hand 
   double for all her sins. A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
   the way for the LORD;
make straight in the desert
   a highway for our God." (Isaiah 40.1-3)

... and I think, well, what difference does it make? 

But oh, Hilary! I want to whisper to myself as I read the collect this Sunday. It changes everything. The messengers do not bring devastating news of destruction. The prophets preach that we are about to receive Joy.

If you are at all like me, the prophets are a bit frightening. They speak with bright hope. They speak with such certainty, with such promise. I am scared of that. In my timid, doubting way, I fear just how much they are preparing me for - they are preparing the way for our salvation. They are preparing the way for the Joy of Jesus Christ.

The message is Joy. And in my small wondering heart, so full of doubts about myself and love and if-I-will-ever-measure-up-and-if-I-can-even-be-what-I-hope-to-be-and-if-He's-listening... the message changes everything. 

I urge you, dear friends, in this season of Advent, to hear the prophets preaching joy and to fill your heart with it. Drink in their words, even the hard words of how we must change and what we must confess. Go back to the well of their promises. Go back to the bright living hope that burns inside them.  And do not fear: for the message of Joy changes everything for good.

Prepare me the way, O Lord, and let my heart radiate the message of Joy.


Friday, December 2, 2011

if you have a weary heart (a five minute post)

Lisa-Jo over at the Gypsy Mama writes words of beauty and truth that spin across continents and computer screens. She helps us laugh and delight in the world, and the words. On Fridays we write for just five minutes - let our words fly free and clear. Won't you join us? 

This week it is about "tired."

Some days I want to take my heart out of its ribcage and look at it in the palm of my hands. I want to feel it beating, feels its shape and its scars and all the history it carries.

Some days I am tired of it breaking. I am weary with the running around and the waiting and the trusting blindly as I wander forward and the disappointment and the candles lit at noon that seem to give no light. I am weary with waiting to be full that I run outside, heart in my hands to God and say, please, won’t you come running to me? Won’t you come find me, and send your rainclouds to this desert?

And still I hold this heart in my hands and I offer its words to the world and I wait to know who will hold it, who will know its secrets and wonder about its stories and who will carry me for a while when I can’t carry myself.

And still my heart keeps beating. The weary heart beats when it is empty. The weary heart beats even when it cannot have what it longs for. The weary heart beats.

The weary heart beats out hope. The weary heart bears the burden of belief when it’s too heavy for the rest of us. The weary heart pushes out towards the sunrise.



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